IT'S HERITAGE OPEN DAY SEPTEMBER 1998 and I'm visiting the Victoria Baths. Situated on Hathersage Road (formerly High St) not far from Manchester Royal Infirmary, the Victoria Baths are one of Manchester's most historic and beautiful buildings. They were opened in 1906 on what was then High Street, providing some of the best bathing, washing and laundry facilities in the country.
On the exterior you can still read the signs for the separate entrances: males - first class, males second class and females. An artesian well provided the water, which was cleaned and pumped first into the males first class pool. It was then recycled for the second class male pool, finishing up in the female pool. Today we find this amusing, but by the standards of the day, it was progressive to offer any kind of female bathing facility.
By the 1930's, mixed bathing was introduced, allowing fathers to teach their daughters to swim. In the 40's, the main pool was often covered over and used as a dance hall - it's said that many wartime romances started here. In 1952, an aerotone machine was installed, a fearful looking stainless steel metal basin thing that treats its single occupant with an envigorating dose of swirling air and water.
Over the course of time, High Street became Hathersage Road, and the local area declined in prestige. In the 60's and 70's, my school, Xaverian College, held swimming galas here (pronounced by Mr Baccus as "gayla"), though I never went myself.
Not so long ago, there wasn't much respect for things considered "old fashioned" and repairs were done on a shoestring budget: old tiles were hidden by tacky wall coverings, original taps were thrown away and replaced. But luckily, the fabric of the building survived and 80 plus years on, the Baths were still in daily use, but the end was just around the corner.
The Victoria Baths, proudly opened by Manchester Corporation in the first decade of the 20th century, were shut down by Manchester City Council in the last. They blamed a shortage of funding caused by Conservative cuts. It's easy to accuse Manchester City Council of neglect, but I say it's down to deep social problems in our society, exacerbated the city boundaries, which exclude wealthier council tax payers from the City council tax rolls.
Since then The Victoria Baths Partnership was formed with the aim of re-opening the building. The Friends of Victoria Baths have drawn up a business plan: Seven and a half million pounds will have bo be raised, some of it hopefully from Lottery money. Things have never looked better, and if all goes to plan it will be open again by 2003.
But it won't be just a plain old "swimming baths". Today's complex social and political climate demands a more innovative approach, especially when trying to secure grant funding: The baths will become a "Healthy Living Centre" with special facilities for the disabled, giving equality of access to all users and promoting overall health and well-being.
IF THIS BUILDING WERE IN HARROGATE, Bath, Stuttgart or Budapest, I'm sure it would never have been closed. Over the last 6 years, vandals, thieves and pigeons have degraded the building. The rot had already set in long before closure: the cast iron changing cubicles show years of corrosion, as do the metal roof struts, which will have to be replaced. But despite the dirt, dust and bird droppings, certain parts look as if they were put in yesterday, particularly the green wall tiles and the Manchester Corporation coat of arms.
The middle hall, formerly for males, second class, was covered over for dry sports - it's proposed to keep this hall like this. The female pool will probably be used as a training pool once again. The Turkish and Russian baths, with their beautiful light green ornamented enamel tiles, look almost like new.
I plan to be there when the pools are filled with water and the steam rooms are steamed up once more. In the meantime, I'll be following the progress of the renovation, and taking more photographs.